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Review: Light and Dark
July 30, 2014

Light and Dark
Natsume Soseki

Translated and with an introduction by John Nathan

You have to admire a country that adorns paper currency with a portrait of a novelist; it speaks to the importance of culture. Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki (1867 ? 1916) was pictured on the 1000-yen note from 1984 to 2004. Best known for his novels I am a Cat, Botchan, and Kokoro, Soseki lived mostly during the Meiji era, the transition between shogun rule and modern Japan. His novels largely mirrored this change, moving the Japanese novel from its more poetic style and minimalism, to realism and three-dimensional characters. He studied and taught British literature and lived in London for two years although, according to his biography, apart from his studies he had an unhappy time there: "Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves."

Light and Dark is Soseki's last novel and was unfinished at the time of his death. Still, even unfinished it was by far his longest book. He was nearing the end of the novel when he died, although he complained earlier to a friend that was having trouble finishing it, not only because he was in pain from his ailments, but also because he was finding it difficult to conclude the story. The novel was written in daily installments serialized in a newspaper, not an unusual method of first publication at the time. He finished installment number 188 on November 21, 1916, wrote "189" on a blank sheet. Nothing more was added to the page before he died on December 9.

Light and Dark is squarely in the genre of a novel of manners, such as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, which explore conflict between individual aspirations and accepted social behavior. In Soseki?s novel of manners, the main character Tsuda, a thirty-something man, is in the hospital for surgery in the intestinal tract and several days of recovery. He is visited by family and friends; unfortunately, they provide little comfort. His wife, O-Nobu, is concerned with their financial situation and whether or not to borrow more money from his family. His younger sister, O-Hide, believes O-Nobu is dragging down Tsuda with her extravagant spending. We also see these two women's lives outside of the hospital as they try to navigate the treacherous waters of family relationships and finances.

Two other characters who figure considerably in the fate of Tsuda are a dodgy friend named Kobayashi, and the scheming wife of his employer, Madam Yoshikawa. For unclear reasons, Madam Yoshikawa is trying to connect Tsuda with a previous lover of his named Kiyoko. Kobayashi knows about their affair, and squeezes money from Tsuda to keep quiet. The building desperation of Tsuda can be seen in this passage:

There were times when he felt like bearing his truth on his back. When he wished to shoulder his burden in plain view of everyone. But without in the least compromising his habitual self-respect. The psychology that had brought him to the entrance of the Yoshikawa house was akin to that of a man who, even as he secludes things as deeply inside himself as possible, wants to reveal his hiding place to others. His interpretation to himself was that he had come all this way on an errand and for no other reason.

As he recovers, Tsuda becomes obsessed with seeing Kiyoko. In the final third or so of the novel, Tsuda is released from the hospital and the action focuses on his tense confrontation with Kobayashi. Tsuda then travels to an inn to further recover from his surgery. However, it is not a random inn. Madam Yoshikawa told Tsuda that is where Kiyoko is staying while she recovers from a miscarriage.

While the novel is unfinished, there is a quiet ending of sorts that will leave most readers with a sense of satisfaction. In his introduction to the novel, translator John Nathan discusses the possible endings that scholars and writers have proposed, including one author's sequel to the story. He also discusses the overriding theme of the novel, which to some degree appears in all of Soseki's novels: "the impossibility of recovery from the suffering in isolation caused, in Soseki's view, by the attachment to the self. ... [It is the] quest of self-knowledge as an alleviation of the uneasiness he carries inside."

Light and Dark is a masterful novel, and Nathan's is a superior translation. For readers of Japanese literature it will be enlightening as it is one of the most important modern Japanese novels that inspired a rich literary tradition. Readers in general will also enjoy the novel for its incisive characters and quiet tension that builds like the best suspense fiction.


Number of comments: 2
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Lee Witte
Enjoyed his Botchan especially, I will read this, thanks for the review.

Jo Reed
and on the 5000-yen note is a portrait of Ichiyo Higuchi, a Meiji era writer and poet


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